The move from hardware to software instruments as the predominant production and performance palette for most musicians hasn't been as seamless as many would like to think. One area that has been notably lagging is keyboard controllers. While the market is awash in a bumper crop of portable USB controllers, if you're in need of a serious master keyboard, the pickings are pretty slim. Doepfer, M-Audio, Korg and a few others offer some options in this department, but until now, no one has been able to put a professional-grade keyboard controller and motorized control surface together in the same unit.
The new CME VX series is an attempt to remedy this situation. Available in four- (VX5; $819), five- (VX6; $929), six- (VX7; $1,049) and seven-octave (VX8; $1,169) versions, the VX boards bring together semiweighted keys (or hammer-action in the case of the VX8), a litany of assignable physical controllers, nine 60 mm motorized faders with corresponding 360-degree encoders, selectable scale and temperament, built-in USB audio and a whole lot more.
Personally, this is the kind of keyboard controller I've been waiting for. As someone who has played in a fair share of laptop-anchored bands, the ability to plug one USB cable into a computer and have full, studio-quality control of DAW tracks, soft synths and effects is something that was previously impossible with any single unit. Sure, there are plenty of other keyboards with faders on them, but there is nothing like the control you get from real, touch-sensitive motorized faders. And with a collection of available options, including a multichannel FireWire audio I/O, multitimbral sound module with sampling and a digital mixer, the VX-series could really represent the next big trend in professional audio hardware.
On paper, the VX boards seem like a dream come true for many. But, as with any first-generation product, getting comfortable with the VX isn't quite as easy as the marketing copy will lead you to believe.
Right away, the VX5 (the model I reviewed) feels like a cross between the compact USB MIDI controllers that many of us are using these days and the massive workstation keyboards of a decade ago, and that isn't a bad thing. Weighing in at around 30 pounds and constructed out of a thick aluminum chassis, the VX is not a delicate flower by any stretch.
The top panel of the VX is fairly self-explanatory. If you've ever used a control surface such as a Digi 002 or a Mackie Universal, then you're going to feel right at home. As stated before, the VX combines the essential functions of master keyboard and a control surface, but rather than grouping the controls as strictly synth and DAW functions, the engineers decided to base things more on ergonomics from the standpoint of a keyboard player.
Starting from the left, there are standard ± octave and ± transpose buttons, six-button transport controls, eight 270-degree knobs, 16 function buttons and 12 Velocity-sensitive drum pads. Everything except for the octave and transpose buttons and the actual black-and-whites can be freely assigned to any MIDI parameter. In the center of unit there is a 32-digit display with a corresponding data pad and jog wheel, as well as the U CTRL button, which toggles all of the unit's assignable controls between standard MIDI control and Mackie Control mode. To the right of the LED, there are nine 60 mm motorized faders and nine corresponding 360-degree encoders. Though mapped to volume and pan respectively, in Mackie Control mode, both the faders and the encoders can also be reassigned to control any standard MIDI parameter.
The back panel of the VX includes one MIDI in and four MIDI outs, as well as an 1/8-inch connection for breath control (compatible with the Yamaha BC3) and two ¼-inch pedal inputs. For audio, the units boasts two ¼-inch TRS mic/line inputs, two ¼-inch TRS outs and a pair of ¼-inch headphone jacks. Input volume can be adjusted via a tiny knob next to the input jacks. There is an identical knob for adjusting the headphone output. (However, there is not a dedicated volume knob for each headphone jack.) Rounding out the back of the unit is a two-port USB hub (handy for software dongles), a standard USB jack for connecting to a host computer, power input and the On/Off button. The unit includes a standard OEM power supply, and due to the complexity of the unit, it cannot be USB bus powered.
Overall, the keys feel extremely sturdy and responsive, boasting the same kind of feel as the higher-end Roland and Korg keyboards. Users can select from 10 Velocity and Aftertouch settings. The encoders all feature a nice rubberized coating that makes them easy to grab, and the eight 270-degree knobs include a center detent, so you'll always know where the 12-o'clock mark is. The pads, though a tad on the small side, feel very playable, and the fact that they light up when hit only ups the cool factor. It is also possible to use the pads to fire off user or factory MIDI sequences to the host computer or connected sound module. (The VX Brain application is required for moving song data to and from a connected computer.) But the real stars are the faders themselves. Even though they are not of the full-throw 100 mm variety, they are incredibly smooth, responsive and vastly superior to anything else that is currently offered on a keyboard controller.
The VX is designed to be a class-compliant device under Windows XP and Mac OS X, meaning all you need to do is plug the unit into a USB-equipped Mac or PC, and the unit will be available as a MIDI and an audio interface. In testing, I started out with a preproduction unit that still had a few quirks that needed to be ironed out via a firmware update. The only reason I'm bringing that up is that is points out a potential issue for Mac users because there is currently no way to update the firmware with a Mac. Under Windows XP, this is simple exercise with the CME VX Brain application, which is an XP-only download. Thankfully, the unit I used for the remainder of the review didn't exhibit any compatibility issues. However, after hours of time lost trying to diagnose and fix the problems I was having with the original unit, I found the CME Website and the included documentation rather unhelpful, if not a tad cryptic. That said, once I plugged the unit into my G5 dual 2.5 GHz running OS 10.4.9, the VX showed up, as it should, as an available audio and MIDI interface. I did the bulk of my testing with Apple Logic Pro 7, where I used the unit as a master keyboard/control surface and as a complete audio/MIDI solution.
Setting up the unit as control surface in Logic was a breeze. With the VX connected and responding as a MIDI device, I simply set up a new Mackie Control Surface template, pressed the U CTRL button on the VX (which toggles the unit over to Control Surface mode), and I was up and away. Right out of the box, most of the controllers map out to where you'd expect: The faders map to faders, the knobs map to the pan pots and it doesn't take too long before you're able to start ignoring the mouse. But the real fun happens when you make the connection between the MIDI controller side of the VX and control-surface side of the unit. With the U CRTL button, you get the best of both worlds. With the button disengaged, you can create an elaborate controller template for soft synths, MIDI hardware and the like (which is a simple process of pressing the Assign button and calling up the desired controller). From there, you can seamlessly switch every controller on the unit over to Control Surface mode and start tweaking your DAW tracks, without having to move your hands more than a few inches in any direction.
From an audio standpoint, the stock 2-in/2-out interface is a no-frills, utilitarian offering. Everything I played through the unit sounded clear and punchy, and the inputs are a clean, simple way to track two channels of audio. The tiny gain knob was a bit annoying and is in no way intended for serious tracking. But for standard keyboard chores, two solid, balanced ¼-inch connections are plenty. Unfortunately, I was unable to test the optional FireWire expansion module, which seriously ups the unit's audio capabilities and turns the unit into what could be a serious all-in-one studio and performance option.
NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART
The only daunting thing about the VX is that there is almost too much for some users to wrap their heads around. With such a vast number of available controllers and very little in the way of labeling, you can get a little lost now and again, especially once you start remapping things. I would have liked to see some basic fader bank up/down and mute/solo labels just to reduce the learning curve a little bit and add to the instant-gratification factor. The unit also screams for a comprehensive mapping/preset management application. This is a de rigueur item that every competing product offers as an included freebie.
In the final analysis, though, the VX is chock-full of potential and is clearly intended for higher-end users. If you add in the synthesis and FireWire I/O options, the VX could easily become the only piece of hardware that a serious professional musician would need for both the studio and stage. For the newbie producer or someone who isn't an accomplished keyboard player, the VX may be overkill. The documentation and Website could both use a serious overhaul, and the Mac support needs to get up to speed. But overall, like the other CME boards out there, the VX is a well-built, aggressively priced offering, with a caliber that the bigger manufacturers will have to scramble to match.
VX SERIES > $819 (VX5), $929 (VX6), $1,049 (VX7), $1,169 (VX8)
Pros: Only keyboard to offer motorized faders. Excellent responsiveness. Built to last.
Cons: Poor Website/documentation. Weak Mac support.
Mac: OS X; available USB port
PC: Windows XP; available USB port